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« Announcement By Farid Zadi | Main | From Peasant Cuisine to Palace Cuisine By Ammini Ramachandran »

December 11, 2005

Mappila Cuisine of Kerala


Mappila Cuisine of Kerala by Ammini Ramachandran

The Muslim influenced Tandoori dishes of Mughal cuisine with its unique technique of marinating meats and vegetables with a careful blend of choicest spices and aromatic herbs have been a gourmet's delight the world over. With the migration of Indian workers to the west during 18th and 19th centuries, the tandoori preparations of Mogul cuisine and the hardy food of the Punjab region were the first to reach the western world. Even today this is the type of food that is served in most Indian restaurants abroad.

Mahmud of Ghazni (modern Afghanistan and northeastern modern Iran), lured by tales of the fertile plains of the Punjab and the fabulous wealth of Hindu temples first attacked northern India in 1000 AD. The Mogul emperor Baber conquered India in 1526 AD and this Muslim dynasty ruled in an unbroken succession for nearly 200 years. North Indian food went through a profound transformation during this period. Meats and breads grilled in clay ovens called tandoors and elaborate dishes – Kababs, pulavs and biriyanis - and sweets garnished with thin sheets of real gold and silver became the mainstay of Mogul banquets.

Many years before the advent of central Asian Muslim invaders to the northern frontiers, coastal region of the Indian Ocean between India, the Persian Gulf, East Africa and the China Sea was an area of active commercial exchange. People along these coasts, blessed with wide open waters and natural harbors, excelled in maritime trade with distant lands. Indian merchants and the inhabitants of the Persian Gulf regions were active traders and intermediaries long before the birth of Prophet Muhammad.

For Europe and central Asia, spices were the envoys from enchanted orient. From ancient times, the monsoon soaked rain forests, home to several spices, especially black pepper, became a prime destination for many explorers. Ancient southern Indian kingdoms enjoyed a flourishing spice trade with the Arabs of coastal Yemen and Oman. By the early Christian period south India was transformed into a commercial hub linked to the West and the East through emporiums located along the coastal and inland routes. Spice trade was as profitable an undertaking as it was complex.

When the maritime trade routes spread beyond the Nile and Euphrates, Greeks, Romans and later the Portuguese ventured to trace new routes to the source of spices and exotic things. However, the old Arab channels of trade continued to flourish thanks to the age-old alliances and agreements between the original Arab and Indian traders. Interestingly cinnamon, the spice that made fortunes for the Arab traders in earlier times still remained an Arab monopoly. The Romans could find it only at Arab ports; the source of cinnamon in India was scrupulously guarded from them. Throughout the Malabar Coast the Romans were offered only malabathrum, the leaves of the same tree that produced the fragrant bark.  Such was the loyalty between the ancient traders of the Indian Ocean.

The Muslim Arab traders came as visitors to Muziris, capital of Chera kingdom and the reigning King treated these guests with all respect and extended facilities to establish their faith in the land. The king arranged for the artisans to build the first mosque at Kodungallur near the port and assigned the area around it for their settlement. The original mosque built in 629 A.D. that resembled a Hindu temple in appearance has undergone extensive repairs, but the traces of the original construction are visible in the columns and the roof.

Undoubtedly Islam spread in Kerala through the migration of new groups from Arabia and the gradual intermarriage and conversion of native population in the permissive social set up of Kerala. By twelfth century A.D there were at least ten major settlements of Muslims, each centered around a mosque. Also a branch of the ruling kingdom at Arakkal, in northern Kerala was converted to Islam. The primacy in trade, the spread of the faith and the experience of the sea made Muslims a prominent class and dear to the Samuthiri, rulers of Kozhikode (Calicut) in northern Kerala and they conferred many privileges on Arab traders. The Samoothiri bestowed the title of 'Marakkar' to their Muslim trade intermediaries who played a significant role in spice trade. During the time the Marakkars Muslims spread from port areas to hillsides of Kerala.

The Muslims of Kerala are known as Mappilas. Influenced by the offshore traders from the Gulf region and leaning heavily on the Indian spice combinations that actually lend Mappila cuisine its distinct taste. Traditional Mappila cuisine is spicy and wholesome and has a lot in common with other foods of Kerala: its base is rice and it is spicy and hot and both coconut and coconut oil are liberally used. Black pepper is obviously predominant, followed by clove and cardamom. Even cashew is a large presence.

Like any typical south Indian households, the Mappila homes also prefer rice and rice based dishes. Par-boiled rice is served for every day meals and puttu, steamed logs of rice flour and coconut served with a curry of kadala (Indian brown chick peas) or fish. Fried rice called Neichoru is a delicacy from the Mapplia kitchens. Liberal use of cardamom, cinnamon and cloves distinguish this rice dish from the ghee rice of other regions of India.  This rich dish is served with chicken or mutton cooked in coconut milk. Malabar biriyani is believed be brought across the Indian Ocean by Arab Seafarers.  The Mappilas also prepare a type of biriyani which is believed to have come from Samarkhand with the Mughals and migrated through the Deccan plateau to the south. The Kerala Muslims have developed many variations of the biriyani – rice cooked with mutton, coconut and yogurt, mutton and egg biriyani and fish biriyani with spices, tomato, cashews and raisins to name a few. Biryani is also cooked differently. The meat and the rice (not the long basmati, but the shorter variety) are cooked separately. They are then layered in a narrow-neck pot and steamed, ensuring that the flavors of the meat completely encompass the rice. It is often served with a simple raw mango, coconut and green chili pepper chutney.

The Mappila breads are Malabar paratha and pathiri. While Malabar paratha is prepared with all purpose flour, several types of pathiri are made with rice flour. There is meen pathiri, ground rice mixed with coconut and spices rolled and filled with fish masala and steamed and the eye-shaped kannan pathiri that is shallow fried.  Then there is the addukkorotti which is rice batter mixed with coconut milk, egg and cardamom and poured in layers and steamed.

Surrounded by abundant water resources, seafood is just a catch away. Soft, fleshy Ari Kadakka and Kallumakkai unda are two fish preparations of Kerala Muslims. Both have mussels steamed within its shell and stuffed with rice paste and made into either dumplings or fried. In traditional Mappila cooking, chili peppers and rice flour make a majority of the bases, along with spices. Especially in meen porichathu — cubes of  fish are cooked with shallots in a chili pepper and cashew paste along with kodampuli (garcinia cambogia, a diminutive purple fruit native to India). Chemmeen ada (shrimp cutlets) is made with cooked and mashed shrimp combined with shallots, green chili peppers, curry leaves ginger and rice flour. Crab prepared with fried coconut and stir fried squid are two other Mapplia specialties.

A dish of Arab origin is Alessa, a wholesome thick porridge of wheat and lamb or chicken is garnished with ghee (clarified butter) and served with sugar at wedding feasts. Beef is prepared with coconut and red chili peppers could be quite spicy hot According to Vijayan Kannampilly, author of Essential Kerala Cookbook (Penguin India 2003), another Mappila specialty is niracha kozhi, is believed to have a connection to the Arab khouzi. In this dish whole chicken is stuffed with a blend of spiced and fried eggs and onions and marinated in a spice mixture and then deep fried.

During the holy month of Ramzan they fast from dawn to dusk and end the fasting by drinking water and eating dates. The snack following this would often be unnakayi – banana rolls. Ripe plantain bananas are boiled, mashed and made into malls. Later these balls are stuffed with eggs scrambled in ghee along with ghee toasted cashews, raisins and cardamom. These balls are then deep fried in oil. After the evening prayers a rich meal of pathiri with fish, meat or chicken curry is served. 

A special wedding dish, Mutta Mala (egg garland), is made from egg yolks and sugar syrup without a trace of oil.  Preparation of this noodle like dish needs considerable expertise. Cherupayaru paayasam (mung beans pudding) rich with jaggery and cashew is another popular dessert.

Although known for its non vegetarian dishes, vegetables are also a staple in Mappila cuisine. Plantains, variety of pumpkins, tapioca, yam, mangoes, jackfruit, and beans are all prized vegetables on the menu. Pumpkin was used traditionally in meat curries. It has been replaced with potato in later years.

The rich variety of Mappila cuisine combines the nuances of spices and coconut with ancient Arab culinary traditions. Unfortunately just like many other culinary treasures of south India, Mappila cuisine has remained mostly anonymous to the western world.


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i picked up vijayan kannampilly's book recently and it is very impressive. i was especially tickled by the pickled mussels recipe(memory fails me, but i think it is part of mappila cuisine).

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